There is no shortage of interesting things to see at the North Carolina State Fair, but as anyone who’s ever been knows, people-watching is half the fun. Active in Raleigh in various forms since 1853, it’s an event that draws attendees from all corners of the state, showcasing everything from large vegetable phenomena and hair-raising rides to rattlesnake corn dogs (see page 15), allowing us all to share, as the photographer Avery Danziger says, the “mundane, wonderful stuff that makes up our lives.”
Danziger should know: since 1972, he’s been visiting the fair off and on to try and capture its magic. To commemorate that 50-year mark, Danziger’s A Fair of the Heart: NC State Photographs, 1972-2022—which includes both film in black-and-white and color—will be exhibited at downtown Durham’s Through This Lens Gallery beginning October 21 and running until November 12. The event is a part of the CLICK! Photography Festival, the monthlong celebration of photography that plays host to more than 85 events in 45 venues across the Triangle.
Danziger grew up in Chapel Hill and has had work shown by the Mint Museum in Charlotte, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. Despite this sprawling reputation, though, the state fair has always drawn him back. His photos—of a couple shyly holding stuffed sharks, a boy coyly standing in front of a pig print, a woman pausing to eat below a “Guess the Weight” sign—tell a story, not just about the state fair but about North Carolina itself. Most photographic series over time track change; in a comforting way, though, these photos show just how much has stayed the same.
Danziger lives in Chapel Hill, where, he says, he serves as a “caretaker” for a one-bedroom house with a pool that served as the setting for Natalie Wood’s final movie, Brainstorm. Recently, I met him in the backyard of Durham’s Accordion Club to learn more about his work. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
INDY Week: When was the first time you went to the NC State Fair?
AVERY DANZIGER: The first time I went to the state fair was when I was probably six or seven years old with my parents—that would have been around 1960 or so. We would go every other year and it was a rare occasion for all the kids to be together, and it was a strange thing we did in almost a religious way for at least three or four years. After that, I would go with one of their friends or employees.
And as soon as I started taking photographs, I would return. That started around 1972, and I would go back every few years and take photographs. I left North Carolina when I was 18 and returned five years ago, and since I’ve come back, I’ve continued to go.
And what did you see?
It’s always been fascinating. As a child that can easily escape from their parents, I would do that as soon as I could—and in those days, at least with my parents—they didn’t look for you. They just assumed you’d come back, and usually, there was some kind of odd prearranged place that you’re supposed to meander around.
I was always attracted to the sideshows. That to me was fascinating—the three-headed woman or the bear-headed snake, or whatever it was; it still exists today. Miracle things, not so much the womp-games and things that came in later—shooting contests, that kind of thing.
What kept you going back, and not just going back but going back and taking pictures?
Several themes are a part of my photography. I love to take pictures of things that people have already taken tons and tons of pictures of—that, to me, is incredibly exciting. Take the most hackneyed thing—dogs, girlfriends, buildings, plants, doesn’t matter—and try and find what was the original essence that made people so attracted to take the photograph in the first place, what power they had, and then try to stir that up.
There’s so much of the insignificant that’s extraordinary when you examine it. One of my series, you may have seen it, was of the interior of an abandoned psychiatric facility called Harlem Valley. It was exciting to me because I made, I don’t know how to put it, portraits of walls. I subtracted something that I thought was beautiful out of chaos.
What about the NC State Fair itself?
It’s a marvelous microcosm of the state. It’s the coolest thing I’ve seen that represents the state. The whole public is, is looking at things that are normally divided up in our society, and they get to see a little window into it—everything from, you know, the Christian churches with their Christ up front and, you know, how to milk a cow or a pumpkin the size of a small house. It’s an extraordinary thing that brings all of those people together.
They seem to abandon whatever political concerns they have for their fellow man and actually go there and enjoy themselves and eat funnel cake and do all this kind of mundane, wonderful stuff that makes up our lives. For a lot of people, it’s a real break for them from whatever it is they do normally, and it’s a reconnection with a whole different type of festive spirit that during COVID had disappeared. I’m looking forward to going back this weekend.
When I’ve shown [my photos] at the state fair—and I’ve shown at other state fairs—I love it because it’s the largest venue I’ll ever have to show my work, like 50,000 people. Some people scoff at the idea of showing at a state fair, but I don’t. I think it’s a great opportunity to get your work seen by a lot of people who would not normally walk in a gallery or museum. And to me, that’s what photography is about.
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